Section 1983 Class Action and Attorneys' Fees: Percentage-of-Fund or Lodestar?

Today the Second Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a lengthy attorneys'-fee opinion.  I can sum it up for you: District Courts have broad discretion in civil rights lawsuits.  This means the Court may award a legal fee based on the lodestar method or the percentage-of-fund standard.  McDaniel  v. County of Schenectady (CA2) (here).

Two interesting footnotes:  One, McDaniel  v. County of Schenectady involved a successful class action lawsuit challenging Schenectady County's policy of strip searching pre-trial detainees.  The Ninth Circuit recently upheld the practice of blank strip searches.  Bull v. San Francisco.  Probably the Supreme Court - if it hears the issue - will affirm the Ninth Circuit's ruling.  In McDaniel, the early bird definitely got the worm.

Two, a close friend successfully prosecuted a Section 1983 lawsuit that was filed on principle.  The woman whose rights had been violated did not want big money damages.  She merely wanted $1 and a declaration that her rights had been violated.  She got both.

Nevertheless, the District Court stuck it to my friend, who asked for a very humble legal fee - approximately $7,500 $5,330.  The legal fees were so "high" because the defendants refused to settle, and thus forced the case to trial.


The District Court told my friend, "You're entitled to a 33% contingency fee for the money damages award.  Therefore, you get 33 cents."

While recognizing that the District Court was giving my friend a "Fuck you," the Second Circuit affirmed in an unpublished opinion McCardle v. Haddad, 131 F.3d 43 (2d Cir. 1997), which is available here.  While Congress gives prevailing parties a right to legal fees, District Courts remain fiefdoms.

When a District Court has near-total discretion over the award of attorneys' fees, how can we say that we live in a rule of law, not of men?  Or do you think that thirty-three cents is what Congress intended when it enacted 42 U.S..C. 1988?  See S.Rep. No. 94-1011 (stating that Congress' intent is “that the amount of fees awarded ... be governed by the same standards which prevail in other types of equally complex Federal litigation ... and not be reduced because the rights involved may be non-pecuniary in nature.”)  Does a legal fee award of thirty-three cents  “ensure ‘effective access to the judicial process' for persons with civil rights grievances"?   Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429 (1983) (quoting H.R.Rep. No. 94-1558, p. 1 (1976)).

2 comments:

  Second Circuit Civil Rights Blog

2:46 PM

What's the name of the case where your friend got 0.33 in attorneys fees?

  Mike

3:42 PM

Here:
http://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov/c/F3/131/131.F3d.43.96-9503.96-9133.1613.2040.html